Martha's Table

Martha’s Table

Two years ago today The Washington Post published a very interesting and uplifting article about Patty Stonesifer, former Chief Executive Officer of The Gates Foundation, who had agreed to lead a local food pantry here in D.C. named Martha’s Table.  Patty, who had previously overseen The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s endowment of $39 billion and a staff of more than 500 for nearly a decade, chose to manage Martha’s Table’s comparably small $6 million budget, 81 paid employees, three vans and a thrift shop.

Martha’s Table is a well-regarded but decidedly local food pantry and family-services nonprofit organization. Beginning with humble roots in 1980, Martha’s Table was originally a place for children to receive free sandwiches and food after school. It gradually grew to address the additional needs of the community by finding solutions to poverty in the short and long term. They also address emergency needs with food and clothing programs and break the long cycle of poverty with education and family support services. The organization impacts over 1,100 people a day with its programs, including those for children and youths from ages 3 months to 22 years old, and their families.

Anyway, after reading the newpaper article, I decided to ride to Martha’s Table to check it out on this lunchtime bike ride.  Their main office and their thrift store are located at 2114 14th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Shaw / Uptown neighborhood.  It is not very far from my office, so after riding there I had a some extra time before I had to be back at my office and decided to wander around a little on my way back.  As I was riding several blocks away I saw a commotion cause by a large number of people in a small alley. I paused to watch from a distance and, when it appeared to be benign, I rode down the alley to see what was going on.

I could barely believe the coincidence when I found out that the commotion was the result of food distribution of the Emergency Food Program of Martha’s Table. As I later found out from their web site, the last Thursday of every month is Pantry Day at Martha’s Table, when they offer emergency food to anyone.  The grocery bag give-away is held between noon and 1:00 pm only, and I just happened to be riding by when it was taking palce. As I stopped to watch what was going on, I noticed one of the volunteers because she looked oddly familiar. After watching for a little while it struck me that I recognized her from The Washington Post article.  It was Patty Stonesifer.  She was there, working on the front lines with the employee’s and volunteers, and handing out groceries to those in need.

It was near their closing time as I was standing around in the alley watching the activity when Patty noticed me dressed in several layers of old sweatshirts and sweatpants to brace myself against the cold during my ride.  I probably looked hungry too, since it was lunchtime and I hadn’t eaten yet.  So she thought I was there for some food but was too apprehensive to ask.  She came over to me and offered me a bag of groceries.  I declined but thanked her, and then I was able to talk with her for a few minutes.  I told her about my bike rides and how I had gone by their building on today’s ride because I had read about her in the newspaper.

She’s a very interesting woman, who is now leading a very worthwhile organization.  In addition to her previous position as the former chief executive of the largest philanthropic institution in the world, Patty has an impressive résumé. She was a senior vice president at Microsoft responsible for developing MSNBC, Encarta and Slate magazine. Patty was also asked by President Obama to chair the White House Council for Community Solutions, was the chairman of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents, and sits on the Board of Directors for Amazon.com.

So with what would have been a lot of corner-office options to sift through, including a university presidency and the top jobs at a national charity and an international development agency, why did she chose a shift in scale comparable to the coach of an NFL football team deciding to coach high school football instead? After moving to D.C., Patty began exploring the city by foot and Metro, much like I do by bike. During these explorations she was astounded by the level and extent of poverty and hunger, especially among children that she saw. So the answer is simple – she saw a need and decided to do something about it. I think that’s a lesson from which we can all learn.

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